September 7th, 2005, 01:27 PM #31
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Okay, I've read this thread and have thought about this for a few days and still haven't come up with a good answer. Phil_geo made some comments about the Thomas Covenant series and that since something very bad and unacceptable happened because of the main character, that he was unable to finish the book. I put the Thomas Covenant series up there as one of the best series ever written. But I have to admit that because of what happens at the beginning of the first book, that I almost quit reading it also. It was something that was hard to take and accept. There is absolutely no forgiveness for this action. However, the main character because of his circumstance, did it to prove to himself that the world he was in didn't really exist. Unfortunately, he is dead wrong. He has a hard time accepting the fact that after all of his years of suffering in his world that he can be in another world where he has no physical suffering and thinks it is all a dream or something his mind has made up and he can't accept that. But, granted, it is something that has an effect on many readers. And unfortunately, many people don't continue with the book or the series once they read that part.
So, after something so bad happens early in this series, what makes it such a good series? I think the fact that Thomas Covenant is so imperfect makes the series so much more believable. Plus, there is the fact that a lot of the other main characters in the series are so memorable and well developed that you really care about what happens to them. Even with Covenant's major crime at the beginning of the series, which he continually feels sorry for throughout the series, you still feel for him in his dilemma of trying to accept the fact that everyone thinks of him as a hero and he doesn't want to be.
On the other hand, too much tragedy has caused me to stop reading a series. There has to be some kind of balance or redeeming quality to keep me interested. Since I loved the Thomas Covenant series so much, I thought I would try another series by the author Stephen R. Donaldson. I read the Gap series (which interestingly enough is a sci-fi series). That series was so dark and tragic but I kept reading hoping for something redeeming to happen. One of the main characters in this series is a woman who seems to have one bad thing after another happen to her, usually at the hand of different men. I read the entire series up until I was half way done with the last book in the series (four books if I remember right). Even this close to being done with the series, I couldn't take it anymore and set the book down without finishing it. It was too depressing to finish even being that close to being done with it. Some of the things happening in that series were just downright disgusting.
So what made the things that happened in the Thomas Covenant series acceptable enough to still love the series and the things in the Gap series so bad that I couldn't finish it? It could have something to do with other redeeming qualities that come through in the series. Maybe I need some good to happen in a series to balance out that dark things that happen. But I have read some very dark books and enjoyed them just the same. For example, Clive Barker is one of my favorite authors and they don't come much darker than him. Many of his stories in The Books of Blood series have no redeeming qualities whatsoever, however, I just had to keep reading to see what the next story was about.
One of the attractions to the fact that certain authors don't seem to mind to let their main characters die off or do something unacceptable in society is that you never really know what to expect of them. To me, it makes the story even more believable and suspenseful. Where is the fun in reading something that you know that the main characters are invincible? I think what makes certain tragic stories easier to read is the way the author handles the death or the fall of the character. Is there something redemptive in the death of the character? Is there forgiveness or regret in the mind of a character that does something devastating? Has the author developed the character well enough that we care enough about them to continue reading to see if something "redeeming" will happen that will "save" the character?
And here is a question to think about. Why is it that it is easier to accept the "bad guys" in a book constantly doing things that are tragic or unacceptable to society and hard for us to accept the "good guys" making an occasional mistake even when it can be very serious. I have to say that there is a greater level of believabitly (is that a word?) when we see how tragedy, mistakes and death can affect characters in a book even when bad things happen to or because of the "good guys". But I tend to beleive that an author makes tragedy, mistakes and death more palatable by the way they handle the situation, the way they develop the characters and the way they redeem the character for the bad thing that happens. And yes, to me, too much tragedy in a book or series is just as likely to keep me from finishing it as is too many good things happening to characters will keep me from finishing a book. An example of this is the book by David Eddings "The Redemption of Althalus". This book was so hard to read because nothing much ever seemed to go wrong with the "good guys". I never finished that book because it was hard to beleive that everything they did turned out to be the right thing. Where is the suspense in reading something like that? Besides, I didn't really care if the characters all died in that book anyway. They weren't developed enough to care about and the weren't human enough to care about either.
September 7th, 2005, 04:14 PM #32Originally Posted by TCat
In many ways (and like many great authors) Donaldson is actually telling the same story over and over. And his tale is the tale of tragedy. And, as mentioned, redemption. And he does so with such a perseverance, such a literate and emotional intensity, as to be almost overwhelming. But he also manages to control this; he manages to create great and frightening things, but not be overwhelmed by them (although the reader might be).
This is the main reason why I consider Donaldson to be one of the very best writers in the fantasy genre.
Last edited by Julian; September 7th, 2005 at 04:23 PM.
September 7th, 2005, 05:40 PM #33
I got bored with Donaldson. Too much use, as I recall, of the word "gelid" - but I did persist through three books... Although I do think the first couple of chapters of Lord Foul's Bane are wonderful.
Interesting thread. Tolkien (in his wonderful essay On Fairy Stories) would disagree radically that the LOTR is tragic (I'm using tragic in the classical sense, not the sense of "something bad happens", which might be sad but doesn't mean tragic). According to him, fantasy is inherently not-tragic, even if it is full of sad things: what defines it is the "happy ending", which he says is a sudden redemptive blessing, a glimpse of possibility beyond all the terrible events of the story. Not at all the "happy ending" of Hollywood movies, which ties everything up in a neat moral, but something Tolkien called "eucatastrophe" to distinguish it from the catharsis (the experience of horror and despair) that tragedy evokes. Eucatastrophe isn't about escapism; it doesn't deny that terrible things happen; but it brings the blessed relief of happy tears.
I agree with Tolkien, actually: I do think that's what fantasy is about. Guy Gavriel Kay definitely gets it. There are fantasies around, fantasies I like, that do different things - Elric could count, I would think, as a genuinely tragic hero. I'm not sure that Scott Bakker either would be so interested in eucatastrophe, though he's not merely dystopian, either.
I can't think of a fantasy book I haven't been able to reread becasue I couldn't bear it. Unless Kafka's Metamorphosis counts: I didn't read that again for a decade, I found it so traumatising. And later the unbearably beautiful and awful and just plain unbearable book about the Holocaust by Andre Schwarz-Bart, The Last of the Just, which really, really is painful.
September 7th, 2005, 06:24 PM #34Originally Posted by alison
This trait, extraordinarily honorable and modest though it is, does not give any indication as to the merit or meaning of his work. Tolkien resolutely left such considerations to others - and rightly so.
As a result, however, there is a distinction to be made between what Tolkien says as a commentator of fantasy on the one hand and between his own work on the other.
Alison's remarks on what Tolkien said about fantasy are obviously very true and pertinent - but they are not necessarily pertinent with regard to Tolkien himself. Or, to put it another way, Tolkien's remarks aren't necessarily pertinent to his own work.
Having said that, I happen to agree with his comments to a large extent. Fantasy, as Tolkien was addressing it, was not tragic, at the time. What Tolkien characteristically left out of the equation, however, was his own work. And I do feel that that work is steeped in tragedy - in the very sense Alison mentions.
What I'm saying, I guess, is that perhaps Tolkien himself introduced tragedy into fantasy. But don't ask him about it - as far as he was concerned, he was just writing a story.
Last edited by Julian; September 8th, 2005 at 02:56 AM.
September 7th, 2005, 10:03 PM #35
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I'm very glad my thread shows signs of life again. This issue is something I care about very much, so thanks a lot for your responses.
I am sorry to say that I cannot usefully comment on Donaldson. Though I agree that the first several chapters of Covenant are pretty good, I felt that his writing style is immature. However, knowing from friends the bad thing that's supposed to happen soon after I left off, I am considering going back to the series. I'd imagine that one cannot write something like that in my-high-school-attempts-at-fiction style and have it make the impact that it makes.
Alison & Jullian - I am not familiar with the term "tragic in the classic sense". Might you give a definition / explanation? I am also very interested in this essay of Tolkien's. Is it online anywhere?
September 7th, 2005, 10:49 PM #36
Tragedy in its (actually proper) sense is a property of drama, and was first defined by Aristotle in his Poetics. And has been argued about ever since... The simplest explanation is that it is a narrative about a protagonist who collides fatally with his/her destiny, who makes a mistake at the beginning of the narrative - usually out of some character flaw or some set up by the gods - that leads with a terrible inevitability to horror, despair and corpses all around. There are elements of Fate or the Gods in this. Eg: in the Orestian trilogy, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia, to ensure good winds for the attack on Troy, and so brings on his head his wife's infidelity and in the end her vengeful murder of him - which in turn demands that Orestes, his son, kills his mother in order to revenge his father - until Apollo puts a stop to the cycle of vendetta and the Furies are tamed. The true tragic hero is always on the horns of a dilemma: damned if he does, damned if he doesn't. The idea is, according to Aristotle, for the audience to experience "catharsis": by vicariously experiencing horror and fear and despair, we face our fears and so emerge cleansed and strengthened.
I looked some time ago for On Fairy Stories on the web; there are bits, but not the whole thing, which is really worth reading. It was put out some time ago in a book called Tree and Leaf, with what I regard as Tolkien's most beautiful story, Leaf by Niggle.
September 11th, 2005, 02:46 PM #37
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Thanks. Yeah I remember the Oresteia. It was a while ago.
----LOTR SPOILER WARNING-------
I do think that the happy end makes LOTR not a tragedy. Somehow it is part of a non-tragic story that the awefully bad thing is avoided. As earlier I made a distinction between inevitable and accidental tragedy, I could make a distinction between inevitable and accidental non-tragedy. LOTR is would squarely fit in with the accidental non-tragedy, as the awefully bad thing is avoided totally by accident of a character losing his ballance next to a precipice. How much more accidental can it get?? It seems though that, unlike tragedy, non-tragedy has to be accidental, else it ceases to be interesting. Who cares about the whole story if it was bound to end well anyway?? This is a strangeness. In a world where moral and legal systems are concerned with motives, my feelings are based on the end result.
However, from allison's definition of classic tragedy, Frodo seems to fit as a tragic hero. So Oedipus fought against his fate and, predictably, failed, while Frodo fought against the ring and also failed. This whole idea of fighting temptation and losing pretty clearly makes him a tragic hero. I bet the ring is a symbol for something like fate anyway.
I guess we do experience some catharsis when Frodo fails, but somehow it isn't nearly as potent as a tragic end. It isn't even a eucatastrophe cuz all ends up allright anyway! Can we have a tragic hero in a non-tragedy? It seems so.
September 11th, 2005, 04:28 PM #38
Several years ago someone recommended I read R.A Salvatore. I tackled a trilogy, the name of which I have forgotten. it involved a group quest to go off and save the world. By the end of the story, most of the heroic group had been killed off. Seems like one of them turned to evil. Even the final Hero, whoever it was, didn't have what you would call a happy ending.
Earlier this year someone gave me a Star Wars novel by Salvatore, part of a larger multi-author story. In this novel he killed off one of our beloved Original Cast. I wasn't really surprised.
The point of this is NOT to knock this author! They were otherwise good stories, and I know a lot of other people like his work. The point is my reaction--
This may be the way the real world often works, good people dying, etc., but this is not what I want to read about.
I want happily ever after, with friends and family all around. I read for escape and entertainment, and that need a fairly positive story.
. . . IMHO
September 11th, 2005, 06:11 PM #39
Yes, the LOTR has tragic aspects, for sure. But I would say that it's still not a tragedy as such... Frodo, Boromir (and Gollum, to a lesser extent) are tragic characters, I think: Frodo saves the Shire he loves, but ultimately loses it for himself; Boromir almost dooms Minas Tirith by his weakness for the Ring, and only regains and redeems himself through his death. It partly depends, I suppose, where you locate the central protagonist. For me, the hero of the LOTR is Samwise Gamgee, whose trajectory is towards the sadness of self-knowledge. The restoration of the Kingdom comes at the price of the loss of the Elves, but the narrative moves nevertheless towards healing rather than division and collapse. Though there are lots of potential arguments about all that.
And I suppose you could argue that Tolkien's central metaphysic, which is stolen from Milton, is inherently tragic: the Fall of the bright angel through the fatal sin of pride (Melkor/Morgoth, Feanor, Sauron, Saruman all play the Lucifer/Satan role...)
Last edited by alison; September 11th, 2005 at 06:16 PM.
September 16th, 2005, 11:28 PM #40
A few people have mentioned that in Lord of the Rings, Frodo failed in his quest.
I have read the story many times, but don't remember ever noticing that. Maybe because Tolkien ignores it. Frodo is honored at Cormallen as though he just tossed the Ring in without a second thought. Gandalf and Sam knew the truth.
While it is true that the journey into Mordor was heroic in itself, as well as the rest of the trip, I find this a curious blind spot.
September 17th, 2005, 06:19 PM #41Originally Posted by fybonacci
As Alison mentions, there's Sam - and the hope for new futures. But that leaves unchanged the fact that the past is gone. It has been destroyed beyond recall - and that goes for the bad and the good.
What sums it up best, perhaps, is that the world Tolkien has created has, by the end of the story, been diminished.
Hmm. This is just a preliminary post. I think I might need to get back to this...
Last edited by Julian; September 18th, 2005 at 02:13 AM.
May 27th, 2008, 11:47 PM #42
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I'm bumping this thread, because three years ago I said that I couldn't read Martin's book A Game of Thrones. The reason was that when Bran gets pushed out the window in Winterfell, it was too much tragedy for me to bear. I went so far as to mention
P.S. I literally stopped reading Martin's book while the kid lay dying in the courtyard, so if he lived, let me know and I'll keep reading!
Essentially nothing else in the book hit me like that one incident - I didn't have any trouble finishing it after I got beyond that one event. It's interesting how certain things can trigger a reaction in you. On to A Clash of Kings! Hopefully no one is killed in that book.
August 16th, 2010, 02:53 PM #43
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Rereading my thread from a while back.
On to Clash of Kings, eh? Hopefully no one is killed, eh?
August 16th, 2010, 04:59 PM #44
a book with too much tragedy can turn me off the story. I usually pick one or more characters to identify with in eaxh book, and if the author bumps them off it can be real annoying. Also, I like something positive to look forward to, even in the most brutal settings. In this context Erikson's eternal war philosophy and his glorification of slaughter didn't work for me, but i kept reading to find out more about the world he created. Another miss was Godless World by Brian Ruckley: I liked the first book, but the second and the third were so depressing i was afraid i would get suicidal.
Examples of tragedy that i appreciated [leaving Martin aside] are R Scott Bakker and Daniel Abraham [Long Price] . I found some hope for redemption in these two.